The Outer Banks of North Carolina are a narrow chain of islands with the world’s largest freshwater sound on one side, and over a hundred miles of beach facing the Atlantic Ocean on the other. The history of English America began here with a mystery, when the first colonists landed, built a settlement, and disappeared.
My journey to follow their traces began in February, in a snowy Philadelphia where I had come to buy a folding bicycle (little more than half the British price). Amtrak, the national rail network, has awkward rules about carrying bikes, but this one fitted into a suitcase which I planned to leave at Rocky Mount station, inland. From there, I would ride and explore a circuit of 350 miles or so to the Outer Banks, along the ocean road and back.
Despite its name Rocky Mount is flat: not the most beautiful town in America, but it must be one of the friendliest. From the Visitor Centre in the station, to the baggage handling man, to the local bike shop, everyone put themselves out to help: phoning round, bending rules, even lending me tools and giving me bike parts free of charge.
The new Route 64 has bypassed most of the towns heading east, leaving the old road as a quieter alternative. Beyond the suburbs and the trailer parks, cotton fluff on the verges gave the only clue to the crop grown here. A state law apparently forbids the use of elephants to plough cotton fields, and I can’t say I saw anyone breaking it.
Tarboro, 14 miles east, was a real discovery. It was chartered in 1760 with a town common which remains at the heart of its historic district today. All around it stand “the grand old ladies”, 45 blocks of beautifully preserved and restored houses built in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Blount-Bridgers house, built around 1808 looks down on them all from the highest point in the town. It houses an art collection and is open to the public. Inside, I met Carol Banks who moved to Tarboro from Kent in 1986, when her husband was offered a job nearby. At first, she was not allowed to work, so she became a volunteer and is now employed as guide and curator.
“I’ve fallen in love with this country: the people, the lifestyle, the weather – apart from the humidity in July and August. Visitors ask me how we put up with it, and I say we have air conditioning and we get used to it.”
She and her husband now own one of the historic houses, built in 1870 by the Palamountains from Devon.
Does she miss anything about England?
“Not the small houses. English food I miss sometimes, English pubs, and tea. It took me a while to get used to things, like different meanings of certain words. I’ll never forget the old gentleman who asked me: ‘do you shag?’”
By mid afternoon, I had covered 50 miles or so and was starting to feel the heat, with the temperature in the 70s. A group of turkey vultures decided I looked more interesting than the carcass they were devouring: they followed me for a couple of miles, circling overhead.
There are several bird reserves along this route, and as the human population thinned further east, the number and range of species increased. The brightest of them all, scarlet with a plumed head, is the state bird, the northern cardinal.
Heading out of Columbia on the second day, towards the Alligator River Wildlife Reserve, I passed signs warning of black bears and red wolves, for drivers who might hit them, and cyclists who might supplement their diet. A chorus of frogs announced the transition to evergreen swamp land. Invisible creatures rustled through the trees on either side, and in a clearing I passed the torn carcass of a deer. Families of turtles dived into the roadside ditch as I approached. I was concentrating on the banks, so I didn’t notice the large black dog on the road in front of me.
Then I saw its legs were thicker than a dog’s, and its back was arched in a strange way. Braking suddenly, I realised I was facing a bear, and more importantly, it was facing me. Not having a gun, I reached for the next best thing: my camera, and of course, by the time I found it, he had gone.
A couple of pelicans escorted me over the 5-mile bridge onto Roanoke Island. I had cycled 150 miles in two days and reckoned I deserved a rest.
The island’s main town, Manteo, was named after a Croatoan Indian who sailed to England with the first explorers, and returned to help the first colonists. Downtown Manteo is a gem. Clustered around its waterfront are coffee houses, craft shops, restaurants, a 70-year-old cinema and a bookshop with armchairs and no pressure to buy. All of these are housed in carefully restored old buildings, or sensitively designed new ones.
The Cameron House Inn, where I stayed for 3 nights, was built of wood in 1919 as the town hall. After nights in towns with only bypass motels it was wonderful to have everything in walking distance, even (I’ll admit to missing this) a pub serving English real ale.
June O’Rourke came from London in 1965, married, and settled in Manteo 25 years ago. “This is a lovely area to live,” she told me, “people are so generous.”
Like many of the locals, she and her husband have stayed on the island during hurricane evacuations. She remembers hurricane Isabel in 2003: “I was here at home, listening to the rows of pine trees, snapping one after the other.”
Roanoke lies behind the main islands, surrounded by the Albermarle and Croatan sounds. At its northern end lie the remains of the settlement created by the first colonists. 117 of them under governor designate John White, landed here in 1587. White’s daughter gave birth shortly after to Virginia Dare, celebrated ever since as the first English child born in America.
Roanoke was not their intended destination. They were already short of supplies. White reluctantly agreed to return to England for assistance, while the others, including his daughter and granddaughter, planned to split, leaving a small group on Roanoke. Storms, pirates and war with Spain delayed White’s return until 1590, when he found the settlement deserted with one word carved on a tree: Croatoan (Hatteras Island today).
The car park was empty in the late afternoon. I found the site in a clearing in the woods, stepped into the earthwork circle and listened to the ocean.
What became of the ‘lost colonists’ intrigued and inspired many who followed. According to local legend, Virginia Dare grew up with the Croatoan Indians. Pursued by two lovers she turned into a white doe, which still haunts the woods of Hatteras Island today.
Since 1937 a symphonic drama, The Lost Colony, has been performed nightly here every summer in the outdoor theatre facing the ocean.
There is a simple visitor centre on the site. The Festival Park on the other side of the island includes an adventure museum and Elizabeth II, a replica ship built for the 400th anniversary of the settlement.
Another long bridge runs from Roanoke to Bodie Island. Its three interlinking settlements of Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk are booming holiday resorts. Large wooden houses for rent or sale (typical price $1.7m) are under construction everywhere within the town limits. Every conceivable activity is possible here in season, from golf to charter fishing to shipwreck diving. There is even a ‘resort’ for pets.
A monument and two visitor centres commemorate man’s first powered flight at Kill Devil Hills in 1903. I never knew Orville and Wilbur Wright ran a bicycle shop: their flying machine was partly built of bicycle parts. The monument stands on the only hill in whole area, with a panorama over the towns to the ocean and the Albermarle Sound.
A cycle lane runs beside the only road heading south, crossing another bridge to Hatteras Island with its National Wildlife Reserve. You won’t find bears or wolves here, but you may see hundreds of bird species through the telescopes set up in the visitor centre, and even from the road.
At Rodanthe, the next town, I met four Carolinian cyclists, who told me how much they liked England and invited me to dine with them in Buxton that evening. They insisted on paying my bill and gave me some miniature whiskies for the road.
Rocky Rawlinson Road in Buxton is a quiet residential street leading to an inlet on the Pamlico Sound. Here, between shrubs and trees, now covered over, archaeologists in the 1990s unearthed remains of a Croatoan Indian settlement, and within it, fragments of European artefacts. Their most exciting find was a ring owned by one of the lost colonists. A traveller who met the Croatoan in 1701 wrote:
“These tell us that several of their ancestors were white people and could talk from a book [read] as we do, the truth of which is confirmed by gray eyes being found frequently among these Indians and no others.”
All traces of Croatoan culture disappeared by the end of the 18th Century, but in the tri-racial mix of people on the island, descendants of the lost colonists may yet live on.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse at Buxton was built in 1870, comfortably inland, but over time the coastline has receded. The solution, in 1999 was to move it on rails 1600 feet. From the beach you can still see the old site, the lighthouse, and the path between the two. A visitor centre tells the story, and in season, you can climb to the top of the lighthouse.
A free ferry connects Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands. A pod of dolphins followed us part of the way. I tried to share my excitement with my neighbour. “Oh yeah,” he said, “we get a lot of them here.”
The top of Ocracoke Island is narrow, with breaks in the dunes giving views over the ocean on one side, and the sound on the other.
From the picturesque harbour at Ocracoke Village, I took the early morning ferry; two and a half hours back to the mainland. Bath, a village 50 miles or so west of the ferry port, is a national historic site. Its Main Street, with houses from the colonial and federalist periods, runs along the banks of a creek to a point from where, on stormy nights, you can see strange lights associated with Bath’s most notorious resident: the pirate, Blackbeard.
I stayed for two nights at The Inn on Bath Creek, a rare new house, built entirely in keeping with the historic ones around it. I had had covered 270 miles, leaving myself just one day to ride the 75 miles back to Rocky Mount. Ten days for the trip was much too short – a good excuse to return before too long.
Bath celebrates its tricentennial this year. The oldest town in North Carolina, it was created in 1705, which was nearly a century after Jamestown Virginia. But in the friendly rivalry between the two states, Carolinians may remind their neighbours who came first.
YOUR CUT-OUT AND KEEP GUIDE TO THE OUTER & INNER BANKS OF NORTH CAROLINA
Winters are milder and sunnier than southern England, with some glorious days in February – great for a quiet break. Enough accommodation and eating-places remain open, but some attractions are seasonal.
The hurricane season is June to November, though the risk is greatest from August to early October. July and August are hot, sticky, crowded and expensive, so April to June and late Autumn are best. Average daytime highs are 70o F in April, 64o F in November.
American Airways flies daily direct from Gatwick to Raleigh-Durham (200 miles from Manteo). Typical return flights cost £280 in April, £572 in August (www.americanairlines.co.uk). Indirect flights from Glasgow and Manchester are a little more expensive.
There is no public transport on or to the Outer Banks, so unless you are into long-distance cycling, you will need to hire a car. Raleigh-Durham airport has most of the main companies. Budget (www.budget.co.uk) charge £135 a week for a group B (Chevrolet Cavalier 2.2 litres).
Open all year. Free Admission. For more on the history of the lost colony see: www.nps.gov/fora/roanokerev.htm.
Open February 18th – December 22nd. Attraction Pass, covering festival park, Elizabeth II replica ship, NC Aquarium and Elizabethan Gardens costs $17 (adults), $8.25 (children). www.roanokeisland.com.
Monday to Saturday, June 3rd – August 19th. $16 adults – various concessions. (252) 473-3414. www.thelostcolony.org.
Wright Brothers National Memorial (Kill Devil Hills)
Open 9 – 5 winter, 9 – 6 summer. $3 for adults. Free for children. (252) 441 7430. www.nps.gov/wrbr
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (Buxton)
Visitor Centre open all year. 9am – 5pm. www.nps.gov/caha.
From February to December. www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/Sections/HS/bath/events.htm
The Outer Banks have an enormous range of accommodation, though prices, particularly in summer, are comparatively high. The Inner Banks (the mainland coast along the sounds) are generally less expensive.
For families, rental “cottages” (wooden houses of any size) are often best value, starting from around $400 a week off-season. Ask about hurricane insurance for summer or autumn.
B&Bs are generally larger and more luxurious than their British equivalents. 2 of the better ones are:
Cameron House Inn (Manteo)
$120 - $210 a night. (252) 473 5619. www.cameronhouseinn.com
$80 - $90 a night. (252) 923 9571. www.innonbathcreek.com
For an ocean-front motel built in the traditional wooden style:
Lighthouse View Motel (Buxton)
$69 - $308 a night. (252) 995 5680. www.lighthouseview.com
For those travelling on a lower budget there are several campsites and:
$17 - $20 a night for dormitory beds. (252) 261 2294. www.outerbankshostel.com
Note, all prices are per room and generally exclude 7.5% tax.
For accommodation lists and general information:
Outer Banks Visitor Bureau (252) 923 3971. www.outerbanks.org
Tarboro-Edgecombe Chamber of Commerce (252) 823 7241. www.tarborochamber.com/lodging.htm
Historic Bath (252) 923 3971. www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/sections/hs/bath/bath.htm
Again, the area has a huge range of all types.
Kelly’s Outer Banks Restaurant & Tavern (Nags Head)
AAA 3 star dining, also live entertainment all year round. (252) 441 4116. www.kellysrestaurant.com
Poor Richard’s Sandwich Shop (Manteo)
A good place for sandwiches, ‘subs’ and lighter meals. (252) 473 3333
Green Dolphin Pub (Manteo)
A down-to-earth pub serving draft Bass. (252) 473 5911
Harbor Street Grille (Washington NC)
Carolinas and Cajun specialities, reasonably priced. (252) 975 4750 www.harborstreetgrille.com
Duck and Corolla at the northern end of Bodie Island have been described as “a shopper’s best friend and a budget’s nemesis” – particularly for upmarket clothing. For the more price-conscious:
Tanger Outlet (Nags Head) sells designer brands at reduced prices. (252) 441 7395. www.tangeroutlet.com
Downtown Manteo is a pleasure to browse for crafts and:
Manteo Booksellers (252) 473 1221. www.manteobooksellers.com.
NB, for folding bicycles:
Trophy Bikes (Philadelphia) 3131 Walnut Street, (215) 222 2020. www.trophybikes.com